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On opening night of our final performance of the year, I was asked to be myself and someone else at the same time. Fifteen minutes before hair and makeup, we realized that one dancer would be out due to a family emergency, and I was asked to fill in, concurrently maintaining my own role. It was something I had never done before: How was I supposed to figure out how to get from my part to her part then back to my own part and do it quickly ‒ ten minutes 'til call!
This artistic experience has been on my mind recently because in quarantine, as in this performance predicament, we have all been thrust into the unknown. Many things are absent – work, school, family, and friends. It is an uncomfortable and confusing present with no guarantee of what the future holds. We have been forced to adapt and so, with courage, we have. But what's next? What we have is discomfort, grief, uncertainty, and a whole lot of time. What do we do with it? For one answer, look to the artist.
Unforeseen absences happen all the time for performing artists and especially for dancers who are constantly in and out on injury. An absence presents a challenge, but the show goes on: It's part of the job. Performance is the culmination of disciplined and rigorous rehearsal, but when you get down to it, the final product is always improvised. Your costume might rip, your hair might fall down, you might trip and fall, or someone might not show up. As in quarantine, the ability to adapt is mandatory.
The first rule of improv is that you never say no, so obviously, I said yes: Yes, I can be across the stage by that count; yes, I can be back in my original spot by the next count. Artists don't entertain the notion of the impossible: You say yes; you make do; you do.
There were many possibilities in front of me. I could have begun the whole piece as the absent dancer and later transitioned into my own part. I could have sped up my own part so that I would have been finished in time for the absent dancer's part. I could have cut half of my part out – which wasn't really necessary anyways – and then immediately transitioned from the first half of my part to her part. None of these configurations had been attempted in this piece before – I and my choreographer, along with my cast-mates, had to imagine how this substitution could work, how we could take the situation and transform it for this performance.
Transformation is perhaps the defining characteristic of an artist's work. Artists are often referred to as "creators" because artists must be original and inventive and because art is, in a way, a product that is created. That being said, artists don't necessarily create new things so much as they deal with materials and concepts that already exist: In the recent Quincy Jones documentary about the titled genius musician and producer, Jones enthusiastically talks with a student about how composing has really always been a pursuit of figuring out "the same 12 notes": "Isn't it astounding, man, when you look at the reality of us having the same 12 notes for 710 years? Everybody! Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Basie, Bo Diddley, Bird – the same fucking 12 notes! It's heavy, man," Jones says. The dancer didn't create the body nor did the musician create the twelve keys.
In order to transform, you must first be acutely aware of what you have been given. This means knowing your materials inside and out – Quincy Jones knows those twelves notes better than his ten fingers – but also having the ability to look around and outside of what you have. The artist must occupy an ironic position, one that allows the artist to see from multiple perspectives. The reason the arts are one of the first things to be regulated in an authoritarian regime is that artists have a knack for being aware, and their ability to express this awareness threatens power that feeds off ignorance. Artists reflect seriously on what there is; once they see what there is, they use their imaginations to come up with what there ought to be. The artistic process is about transforming the "is" into the "ought."
In my own case, I required situational awareness to analyze the stage and the whole piece. To imagine the new possibilities, I had simultaneously to be aware of what I was doing and what she (the absent dancer) was supposed to have been doing, as well as what everyone else was doing. I had to be aware of the timing at that particular point but also the time in context of the piece as a whole. I had to be aware of the space that I occupied but also the space that the others occupied so I might imagine how to navigate the space. Like chess players, we had to look at the whole board, not just the steps right in front of us.
Now, adaptation and transformation are two concepts characteristic to the artistic experience, but they are in no way peculiar only to artists. Lots of practices require adaptation: For months, after our can opener broke, my roommates and I opened cans using a knife, a hammer, and pliers. But this was hardly an artistic endeavor: For an artist, the product of the transformation isn't just a product but a metaphor. Upon discovering an empty space on the stage when my cast-mate was absent, I could have adapted by literally walking over and filling the space, adhering to the given amount of time. But I'm a dancer, and this was a dance, so the literal would be insufficient: I had to figure out how to dance there, using that metaphorical language. When most of us might look at the piano and see, at best, "A B C D E F G," Quincy Jones is able to look at those notes, imagine their potential, and transform them from literal sounds into symbols of love and life and funk and spirit. Artists study the literal acutely, imagine its potential, and then attempt to transform it into the metaphorical – something that surpasses the literal, that transcends it.
Finally, in order for art to succeed, it must be compassionate. The fastest way to get to my new spot would have been through another dancer: The fastest way was to push her aside so that I might have run, in all my glory, to my new position in time. Literally, that could have worked for me. We all know, however, that mowing down a fellow dancer certainly wouldn't have looked good onstage. It's not merely a moral and/or ethical choice (though clearly knocking people down is not an ethical thing to do), but compassion is something woven into the fabric of art: Whether or not you agree, for a dance piece to succeed, all of the dancers must be aware of and look out for each other. Without solidarity, without compassion, the piece simply will not work.
Thus, in those ten minutes where I, the cast, and my choreographer were forced to "adapt" our opening, there were actually a lot of things to be done. We were asked to be brave and take a chance, to say yes to an unknown emptiness. Second, we were asked to imagine a new dance in which that emptiness would be filled and then transform what we had into what we imagined. Finally, in compassion and solidarity with my fellow dancers and choreographer, we attempted to transcend the given situation using our dancing and choreography as revealing metaphors. It was my introduction, but this is what artists do everyday.
In quarantine, as we scramble for direction, our tendency is to turn to political leaders, religious leaders, and doctors, and – don't get me wrong – all of these perspectives are essential. But if we ask who is most familiar with adaptation, who knows how to take familiar and unfamiliar things alike and transform them into something extraordinary, and who, ultimately, can use this transformation to transcend any given situation, the answer would be none of the above. The answer would be that the artist, one who wisely observes the trouble in mind and the twelve keys, imagines what could be, pulls out a pen and some staff paper, and writes a symphony.